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Arrow
1985
Educational
£9.95
English
ZX Spectrum 48K
None

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96,97,98
Rosetta McLeod
Chris Bourne

I always seem to be complaining about the poor variety and quality of educational software in this column, but now I've found a series of early learning programs which I can be totally enthusiastic about. The Learning Box program written by Five Ways and published by Arrow, is an out standing series which encourages young children to develop basic letter and number skills.

Five Ways have put a great deal of thought and effort into the programs, and have realised that educational package should include not just the computer tape, but also other materials such as books, together with clear guidance on their use. Each of the programs in the Learning Box series follows the same format: the attractive plastic case contains the tape (which has the program on one side, and a story or rhymes to listen to on the other); a beautifully illustrated story-book to accompany the audio tape; a parents' book containing step by step instructions for all the learning activities; and an overlay which simplifies the keyboard for even the youngest child.

The programs themselves all feature a carefully structured range of activities designed in a clear sequence so that children can work from the easy to the more difficult. This logical structure of subject matter is extremely important for effective meaningful learning. The inclusion of detailed guidance for parents ensures that the foundations on which a new learning activity rests can be introduced before the concept is presented using the computer.

For very young children, learning material must be bright and attractive, and the colourful screen graphics of The Learning Box series are quite excellent. Sound is also used to very good effect, and it can be turned off if required. Other extremely useful touches include the facility for exiting from an activity at any point and return to the menu, and well as pause facility. The control keys for all of these options (caps shift/break and the appropriate number key) have been carefully selected to make it virtually impossible for the child to carry out any of these actions accidentally.

It really is hard to find any criticisms of these programs - the only real snag that arose concerns the overlay which doesn't fit the Spectrum Plus and could possibly have been a bit more robust. The main thing, though, is that in terms of their educational value and the enjoyment they offer, the programs are streets ahead of most other early learning software. Daniel (as you know, he's my five year old tester) loved the series, even demanding to see them again as soon as he woke up in the morning - though at that early hour, his father perhaps be forgiven for being less than enthusiastic!

THE NUMBER PROGRAMS £9.95 EACH

Mister Mac's Money
Age Range: up to 6
Educational Aim: telling the time

Nine Currant Buns
Age Range: up to 6
Educational Aim: simple sums

The Magic Shop
Age Range: up to 6
Educational Aim: using money

Five Little Ducks
Age Range: up to 6
Educational Aim: counting

The most simple of the number programs for the younger age group, Five Little Ducks, begins by teaching sorting and matching skills, then develops the concept of counting using the numbers 1 - 5. There are ten activities in this program and, again, all of them are nicely related to the rhyme of the Five Little Ducks in the booklet and on the listening tape. The most outstanding feature of this program is the way in which it relates the number of objects represented pictorially on the screen to the figure symbol for the number.

This relationship is also used to good effect in Nine Currant Buns, which goes on to the next stage and introduces the numbers 6 - 9, before giving practice in counting, adding and subtracting using 1 - 9. This time there are, would you believe, no less than seventeen activities arranged in graded steps! The simple sums using plus and minus signs are very clearly presented. This is exactly the kind of approach which brings arithmetic to life for young children.

Mister Mac's Day, the telling the time program, is a very clever way of teaching children a very complex skill. When you consider the variety of types of clock available these days - analogue, and both 12 and 24 hour digital - and the different ways of expressing time - five thirty, half past five, seventeen thirty - you'll begin to realise how difficult it can be. The designers, though, have thought of every eventuality, and have created a charming story to form the background for the activities. Children will love reading about, and listening to, Mr Mac's Day and then helping Mr Mac drive his train so that it arrives at the stations on time.

Using money is another skill that children must master, and in The Magic Shop the child has to buy the ingredients to make magic potions. The coins are pictured on the overlay, so the child can press the appropriate keys to count out the money needed. Once the youngster can manage to count out the exact sum required, guidance is given on counting out the nearest amount of money, and then checking that the correct change is given by the shopkeeper. The parents' guide stresses the importance of practising with real money, and offers some helpful advice. One child of seven who tested the game for me spent over an hour, totally engrossed in it. He particularly enjoyed the Making Spells activity, where the child chooses from the spell book and makes a potion by using the coins to buy the ingredients needed. (My tester usually began with "squirt of anti-spook spray"!)

THE LEARNING TO READ PROGRAMS £9.95 EACH

Red Riding Hood
Age Range: up to 6
Education Aim: reading words

Goldilocks
Age Range: up to 6
Education Aim: reading sentences

The Enormous Turnip
Age Range: up to 8
Education Aim: building words

Hansel and Gretel
Age Range: up to 8
Education Aim: spelling

Based on well-loved children's stories, these programs are a superb example of how computer assisted learning should be integrated with other methods of learning. The Red Riding Hood tape contains eight graded activities moving from various matching pictures games to matching letters, then building up to matching words. The children's book contains beautifully illustrated pictures of characters and objects from a story, each one clearly labelled, and children will love listening to the story read on tape by Toni Arthur.

Goldilocks goes on to the next stage of learning to read, which is decoding sentences. Again the skills are broken down, this time into five graded activities, and, as with the programs, clear instructions are given to the parent as to how best to help the child. The fourth activity, for instance has been especially designed for the child to play alone (though the parent is advised to be on hand to help if necessary). The random ordering of sentences in this game ensures that the words have to be read rather than memorised.

For children up to eight years, The Enormous Turnip is a very clever way of teaching letter sounds, word making and spelling. The various computer activities are closely related to the story of the old man who has to rope in all his relatives in order to pull up the huge turnip, and the graphics are superbly entertaining. I particularly liked the mouse which does a somersault when the child gets the answer correct!

Hansel and Gretel is the most difficult of all the reading programs. It introduces some of the more complex letter combinations (words beginning with sl, pl, br) and vowel sounds (as in kite, bone) and gives the child practice in spelling words from the story. This time, the child moves on from using the overlay to spelling the the letter keys.

GENERAL RATING

All of the programs succeed remarkably well in their learning-through-play aim. They are interesting and imaginative enough to hold a child's interest, and the variety of carefully graded activities ensures a steady progression of tasks as the child learns. The listening tapes are of a very high quality as are the children's booklets, and the screen graphics are quite excellent. The guides for parents are both comprehensive and informative, giving detailed support to those who are unsure about how to help their children. A great deal of thought has gone into the design of these packages, and they are by far the best series of early learning programs I have seen.

Highly recommended!

CRITICISM